Archive for January, 2010

Putting the hot pepper jelly to a taste test

As we made our version of the Cayman pepper jelly, we were a little concerned about the color. Ours seemed to have a lovely amber hue, while the original was darker and more opaque. Once our jars had rested and the jelly had set, we came to the moment of truth. How did it compare to the Cayman product we so admired?

We spread water crackers with each. As we had observed, our jelly (on the left) was paler and more translucent. It also appeared to have fewer bits of pepper pulp in suspension. We sniffed. Ours had a slightly acrid nose. The original smelled sweeter and darker—almost like French onion soup. That should have been the tip-off.

Then we tasted. Ours was still sharper, maybe even a little hotter than the original. It also had a distinct flavor of raw peppers—both sweet peppers and chiles. The original was smoother, with a long finish of roasted garlic and caramelized onions next to the fruity flavors of the family of peppers that includes habañero, Scotch bonnet, and the mild Cayman seasoning pepper.

Final judgment: Our jelly will be fine as a marinade ingredient, but we won’t be eating it on crackers just yet.

We’re guessing that the secret Cayman recipe calls for cooking the peppers with onion and garlic before proceeding with the next step. Oh well—the people at Pepper Patch spent four years working out the kinks in their recipe. We seem to have mastered the right amounts of thyme, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. Our biggest challenge will be to get the pepper mix right. The sweet bell peppers, no matter how ripe, are the wrong flavor. We will need a whole lot more Cayman seasoning peppers before we try this again. Check in next fall, after we’ve harvested the garden.

31

01 2010

Trying to make Cayman pepper jelly

When we visited the Cayman Islands earlier this month, we flew with carry-on baggage, which severely limited what we could bring home. We jettisoned some shampoo and toothpaste and slid some small jars of Cayman hot pepper jelly into our 1-quart ziploc bags, but it wasn’t enough to keep us in cracker spread for very long.

We thought we’d try to make our own version, almost using up our store of the original to analyze what was in it. (The recipe is a secret, but food labeling laws mean that the packaging discloses the ingredients, if not the proportions or the way they are handled.) Knowing that we didn’t have the “assorted West Indian peppers” listed as the principal ingredients, we improvised. Clearly we needed Scotch bonnets for the heat and fruit, but we also needed some other fruity peppers as filler or the result would be inedible. We finally settled on a mix of sweet bell peppers, long and conical Italian peppers, mildly hot Fresno chile peppers, and (of course) Scotch bonnets.

So with the outdoor thermometer here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading 19 degrees F (the wind chill brings the effective temperature to-7F), we imagined being back in the warm sunshine of Grand Cayman as we cooked up some heat. As we worked through the recipe, we constantly tasted and adjusted the herbs and spices to parallel the Cayman product as closely as we could.

All jellies take a few days to fully set. We’ll get back to you with a side-by-side taste test.

Cayman style hot pepper jelly (version 1)

Ingredients

3 red bell peppers
3 ripe (orange or red) Italian frying peppers
3 red-ripe Fresno chile peppers
6 ripe Scotch bonnet chile peppers
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
6 1/2 cups white cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pouch Certo liquid pectin

Directions

Using a propane torch, char the skins on all the peppers, place in plastic bag to sweat for 5 minutes, then scrape away burnt skins. Cut up peppers, discarding stems, seeds, and white membranes. (Rubber gloves will help prevent chile burn.) Cut peppers into small dice. You should have about 3 cups.

Place diced peppers and vinegar in a blender or food processor and process until completely pureed.

Place pepper puree in 6 quart or larger non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enameled cast iron) and stir in sugar, butter, salt, garlic, thyme, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon. Bring slowly to a rolling boil, stirring all the while to thoroughly dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Skim off foam with a metal spoon. (The butter binds with the foam, making it easy to remove.)

Stir pectin into pepper mixture and raise heat to return to a rolling boil. Boil exactly 1 minute and remove from heat.

Ladle into jelly jars. Add lids and rings. Tighten rings. Process in boiling water bath (about two inches above tops of jars) for 5 minutes. Remove to cooling rack. Jelly may take a few days to set.

Makes 7 cups of jelly.

30

01 2010

What to buy in a grocery store on Grand Cayman Island

The explosive growth of top-flight restaurants on tiny Grand Cayman has jump-started local agriculture on this haven for snowbirds and international finance located west of Jamaica and south of Cuba. At the Brasserie, for example, much of the produce on the menu comes from the restaurant’s own gardens and much of the rest from tiny farm patches on the east side of the island.

We would love to bring home some of the local fruits and particularly the Cayman seasoning peppers, which have all the flavor of a Scotch Bonnet and only a fraction of the heat. But US Customs would frown. There are, however, a few preserved foods worth tucking into your suitcase. The Foster’s IGA grocery stores carry Caymanian products that are impossible to find off-island. They also cost far less at Foster’s than in souvenir shops or the hotels. The grocers also carry a nice selection of Jamaican and certain British goods.

Here’s our Grand Cayman shopping list:

Hot pepper jelly.
A tiny amount of Scotch Bonnet pepper supplies the heat to this jelly from Pepper Patch on Grand Cayman, but Caymanian seasoning peppers are responsible for the depth of the flavor. Some 16 ingredients in all go into the tangy jelly, including traces of sweet spices like allspice (called pimento in the Cayman Islands), nutmeg, and cloves. Local residents spread it on water crackers, but we find that a dab of the jelly is the perfect accompaniment to Manchego cheese from Spain.

Cayman sea salt.
Sea salt in most countries is an inexpensive commodity often produced by evaporation in heated pans. This delicate salt is made strictly through solar evaporation and is hand-harvested. It is too expensive to use in marinades, but makes a good finishing salt. The flakes provide delicious salinity and textural crunch. We sprinkle them judiciously on grilled fish and on salads with mangos and baby greens.

Tortuga Rum Cake.
Except for turtle-shaped key chains, rum cake is the #1 Cayman tourist souvenir. They are sweet, dense crumb cakes with a light rum flavor enhanced by the addition of key lime, coconut, or chocolate chips. We are not huge fans and consider them pricey (even at Foster’s). But some of our friends love Tortuga rum cakes, so we bring them home when we have space in the luggage.

Hot sauces.
Our appreciation of hot sauces is restrained, since every yahoo with a kettle seems to have started a hot sauce company. Even so, it’s worth cruising the aisles at Foster’s for either of the local companies. Hawley Haven Farm makes down-home farm products, including a hot pepper sauce, while Cayman Islands Sauce Company emphasizes firepower with the likes of Hotter N’ Hell Sauce. Both products are worth a try, though we are just as likely to resort to the Pickapeppa Hot Sauces from Jamaica, readily available at Grand Cayman markets. A few drops of the Spicy Mango or the Gingery Mango Pepper are especially good on grilled mahi.

20

01 2010

Making paella Valenciana at home

Paella must be popular worldwide, judging by the recipe we received from the proprietor of Ceramicas Terriols (see below) when we purchased our paella pan. The directions were in a babble of languages, including Chinese and Russian. We can’t comment on the clarity of the Chinese and Russian, but the English was, shall we say, tortured. (Sample directions: “When the meat is gilding, the tomato and paprika are thrown well moved till the whole is lightly fried.”)

Still, we got the gist of it and we wanted to try it when we got home.

Since we have to traipse halfway across the city to buy rabbit, we decided to see if chicken thighs would make a good substitute. We can get good periwinkles in our neighborhood but rarely find live land snails, so we substituted button mushrooms to approximate the chewy texture and earthy flavor. Likewise, fresh favas would be nice, but lima beans are much easier to find.

We tinkered with the recipe over several months. The chicken is not as delicate as rabbit, but has similar size, texture and flavor. The lima beans are less meaty than favas, but as a close relative, they have a texture that is similar enough to pass muster. The mushrooms are definitely a compromise, but better than periwinkles. For an authentic version, you really need land snails. Still, we think this take on paella valenciana is better than any we’ve found outside Valencia. Our friends like it.

One additional cooking note: The broad base and shallow depth of a traditional Spanish paella pan ensures the classic texture with a slight crust on the bottom. You can also use a 15-17-inch shallow ovenproof skillet but you probably won’t get the crunch.

Paella Valenciana

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
24 button mushrooms
8 chicken thighs, skinned and cut in half (about 2 pounds)
1 cup chopped tomato, drained
2 teaspoons sweet or smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón a la Vera)
2 roasted and peeled red peppers, cut in 1 inch squares
1 1/2 cups green beans, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup lima beans, fresh or frozen
3 cups strong chicken stock
1 cup white wine
1 thick pinch saffron (about 1 gram)
1 3/4 cups Valencia rice (ideally, Bomba)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in 15-inch paella pan over medium heat.
2. Brown mushrooms on all sides (about 5 minutes).
3. Add chicken pieces and brown on all sides (about 7 minutes).
4. Add tomato and paprika. Stir well to loosen browned bits in pan.
5. Add red pepper, green beans, lima beans, stock, wine, and saffron. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.
6. Stir in rice to distribute evenly. Simmer 7 minutes while preheating oven to 350 degrees.
7. When rice is still moist but not soupy, move pan to preheated oven. Bake 7 minutes.
8. Remove pan from oven and cover loosely with foil for 7 minutes.

Serves 4.

11

01 2010

Shopping in Valencia for paella tools and ingredients

Mercado Central, Valencia

After tasting paella at La Pepica (see previous post) , we were able to identify the essential ingredients and seasonings we needed to bring home to recreate the dish. The best place to shop for in Valencia for paella fixings is the soaring Modernista train-shed of the Mercado Central (Tel: 963-829-101. www.mercadocentralvalencia.es, open 7:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Monday–Saturday). It’s one of the largest fresh markets in Spain, perhaps because the area around Valencia is intensively agricultural. The subtropical climate not only permits year-round cultivation of greens and legumes, the swampy lagoons are also home to some of Spain’s most prized rice plantations. You cannot take home the fresh veggies, but you can bring the heirloom rice, the spices, and the special pans for making paella.


The best paella is made with Bomba rice, an heirloom variety introduced to the area by the Moors in the 8th century and still grown in the Albufera wetlands south of the city. It is nowhere as productive as modern rice, but has an exceptionally nutty flavor and will absorb nearly twice as much liquid as other short-grain rice while still remaining al dente. La Pista Pastor, at stall #43, sells it.


Pimentón a la Vera

The other critical items for a good paella are saffron and Spanish paprika. Pimentón a la Vera is a subject unto itself, but let it suffice that Antonio Catalán (stall #457) drew us into his orbit with heaping mounds of bright red sweet and hot paprika and a brick-colored hill of smoked paprika (pimentón ahumado). He also has the best prices in the market on saffron, and cheerfully educates buyers on the subtle differences between grades. (Bottom line: Try to purchase whole threads with few or no golden flecks.)

Paella pans

Strictly speaking, of course, “paella” is not the rice meal, but the metal pan in which it is cooked. The shallow pans ensure that the rice is spread out well, and the thin metal guarantees a fine crust on the bottom. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that you can’t make a proper paella without a real paella pan. We knew we could purchase one at home (where it would be more expensive) but couldn’t pass up the array of iron and stainless steel pans at Ceramicas Terriols (stall #51), where the proprietor provides a recipe with every purchase.

06

01 2010

La Pepica: the mother church of paella in Valencia

La Pepica kitchen

When Valencianos say that they are "going to the beach," they usually mean Playa de Malvarossa, an urban strand blessed by fine sand, gentle waves, surprisingly clean waters—and the mother of all paella restaurants, La Pepica. While three-quarters of the menu of this venerable eatery (founded 1898) consists of fish and shellfish, the other quarter is a golden litany of nearly two dozen classic Valencian rice dishes.

A maestro of La Pepica

The main entrance is on the beach, but we prefer entering from the street just to walk past the dynamic kitchen where dozens of cooks in gleaming kitchen whites prepare pristine ingredients and juggle huge paella pans. The dining room is daunting. In foul weather, it seats about 450. In good weather, outdoor tables can accommodate another 200. Yet the food and service remain every bit as good as when Hemingway feasted here 60 years ago, and wrote glowingly of the meal. (Unlike some Hemingway haunts, La Pepica has aged well.)

Presenting the paella

It is uncanny how the waiters in white shirts and black vests can service 450 diners at a time and still get the orders out lickety-split. They bring each finished paella to the table for approval, then retire to a serving station to dole it out on individual plates.

Every tourist eatery in Spain sells plates of orange rice festooned with shrimp and mussels; in Valencia that dish is known as “arroces con mariscos,” or “rice with shellfish.” Paella valenciana, the authentic local paella, comes from the garden, not the sea. Filled with vegetables, land snails, and pieces of chicken and rabbit, it’s cooked in a shallow pan over a very hot fire. La Pepica serves an exemplary version—redolent of saffron and paprika, with al dente rice cooked to a thin crust on the bottom. The vegetables and snails are earthy, the chicken and rabbit sweet and falling off the bone.

Reservations are not essential, but might help avoid a wait on the weekend. La Pepica, Paseo Neptuno, 2-8. Tel: 963-710-366, www.lapepica.com. Open daily for lunch and for dinner Monday-Saturday.

03

01 2010